Monday, December 5, 2011

Shame (2011)

Dir. Steve McQueen

3.5 out of 5

The deleterious effects of addiction make for easy admonitions against poor behavior and poor choices by meth heads and alcoholics, but what about when the drug in question is as elemental (or as banal) as sex? That's the dilemma posed by Steve McQueen in Shame, a message film that's often as emotionally detached as the stoic sex addict (Michael Fassbender) at its center. With a warm smile and an understated sophistication that belies his tendency to masturbate and copulate vigorously in a variety of locations, Fassbender is mesmerizing as an archetype of masculinity gone wrong. His prurient pursuits are upset by an unexpected visit from his bohemian sister (Carey Mulligan), exposing the disturbing nature of his private affairs and sending both of their lives into a desperate tailspin.

McQueen almost has a documentarian's curiosity toward Shame's subject matter, with multiple long takes and static compositions lending the film a fascinating fly-on-the-wall quality. Shame examines humanity in a fundamental state - not just the understated moments of honesty, but also the stark meanness that accompanies a craving as insatiable as Fassbender's. Doubling as an encompassing portrait of the lonely, Stygian side of New York City, the movie pulls the eye away from the skyscrapers and penthouses towards the gutter, and suggests that the distance isn't as far as you would think. In the movie's best moments man and city intertwine, codependent agents that feed off each other's need for a little bit of action. The takeaway seems to be that some people seek just to prove that they can find.

One thing you won't find a lot of in Shame is sympathy. Mulligan projects some heartbreak as a cipher for the families that struggle with their "difficult" loved ones. Doing everything short of writing her brother an intervention letter, she doesn't define her own desires as much as she tries to deny his. But what, besides the complex chemistry of siblings, motivates the pernicious push-and-pull in this odd coupling? It's hard to say. But to know Fassbender is to be riveted by him. His bold performance is largely responsible for making Shame a compelling, clinical day-to-day examination of asynchronous emotional and physical needs, even if the bulk of the film's courage rests in the supple montages of Fassbender's unfathomably Dionysian existence.

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